West Wing Story: Smooth Diplomacy

The United Nations is not really George W. Bush's kind of place. First of all, the signage at the headquarters is in French. (The president famously dismissed an American reporter as "intercontinental" for speaking in French.)

Bush hates the pomp and circumstance of the world body, where he was introduced this morning as "Your Excellency." And it irks him that the rigid parliamentarian rules dictated that the Brazilian foreign minister got to speak before him.

Bush also had to sit through a lecture by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who told the U.S. president that the more leaders "use multilateral institutions the more other countries will respect them."

But the president doesn't want other countries' respect. He wants Saddam Hussein gone. The president seemed surprised by the polite applause that greeted him before he finally gave his address to the General Assembly today. He ignored the 15-minute limit on all speeches and--uncharacteristically--went 10 minutes over the allotted time. But despite that breach, he pulled a smooth diplomatic move. Instead of ignoring the U.N., he appealed to its vanity.

He hailed the proud history of the organization, which was created to thwart the "will and wickedness of any man." Hussein is a "threat to the authority of the United Nations and a threat to peace," said Bush, who itemized many of the promises Hussein had broken. "Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?"

He did not offer new proof against Saddam Hussein. The White House released a document called "Decade of Deception and Defiance," which itemized and sourced everything from Hussein's abuse of women to his pursuit of possible nuclear technologies. But it did not have either a smoking gun (connecting Saddam to 9-11) or even a loaded gun (real proof of imminent nuclear attack). "The first time we may be completely certain he has nuclear weapons is when, God forbids, he uses one," Bush argued.

It was a smart strategy. The president did not lay down a deadline for U.N. action, but a senior administration adviser told reporters afterward that "we don't really believe that there needs to be much more time before the U.N. acts." Bush's only ultimatum was to say that "action will be unavoidable." He suggested that he would like the United Nations to take that action instead of the U.S. military. You want multilateralism? Bush seemed to be saying. Here's your chance.

The Bush administration has been embracing the "international community" of late. This White House used to make fun of the expression. They claimed no such "community" really existed, that the term was outdated in this one-superpower world. But lately the president's advisers can't seem to get enough of the term. They have not started using the other maligned foreign policy slogan, "nation-building," but they are doing more of it in Afghanistan, for example.

Another notable foreign-policy shift is in their attitude toward The New York Times. White House staffers have complained bitterly about Pentagon leaks to the paper and that its editor had been using the front page to editorialize against them. West Wing top brass took it up with The New York Times top brass. Lately, the front page has been full of information that generally helps the administration's case (good leaks versus bad leaks?), and Bush even wrote an op-ed piece for the paper this week. Despite the White House's repeated insistence that they prefer local press to the national press corps, they have turned to the paper of record now that they want to make their case to the foreign-policy establishment.

Bush is meeting with a lot of world leaders today and tomorrow in New York for what are known as "pull asides" in U.N. parlance. Multilateralism at work? Kind of. Most of these meeting are an airing of Bush's views, not a solicitation of world opinion. Back at the White House earlier this week, that so-called "consultation" didn't go over so well with the Portuguese president, who insisted that he wasn't there just to listen. How much Bush is really listening to him, Kofi Annan and others is unclear. He may have his mind made up and is simply going through multilateral motions. But for a man who once called Africa an "important country," Bush is looking pretty, in his words, "intercontinental" these days.